A mother-daughter tragedy presented in a cinematic hall of mirrors, The Arbor aestheticizes its grim nonfiction narrative with mixed results. Built on the audio accounts of family and friends of Andrea Dunbar, a product of the toughest council slum in West Yorkshire who became an unlikely star playwright as a teenager, Clio Barnard’s film focuses on the costly legacy of Dunbar’s alcoholism, neglectful parenting, and death at age 29 in 1990 in terms of her three children, particularly Lorraine (Manjinder Virk), whose descent into addiction and prostitution seems anchored to her bitterness over her mother’s carelessness and “exploitation” of her promiscuous, abuse-ridden youth.
The interviewees are never seen, but their words are lip-synched by actors who are framed in static tableaus, usually in indoor domestic settings or the open-air environs of Andrea’s native housing project, which is also the site of staged scenes from Dunbar’s first play (titled The Arbor after her home street). The overgrown lawns and working-class rooms of the Buttershaw estate are the inescapable source of Andrea’s abbreviated, notorious miseries and Lorraine’s increasingly horrifying descent, which dominates the film’s second half.
While the synched-performance element of The Arbor—a technique classified as “verbatim theater”—recedes from the viewer’s consciousness as the brutal events of the Dunbar women’s lives eclipse it, the choice should seem inevitable to be fully defensible; it doesn’t. While the cast’s miming is scarcely perceptible and doesn’t preclude engaged, empathetic work, particularly by Virk and Christine Bottomley as her more resilient sister, the art-film framing and slow pans across the council estate’s facades often battle the power of documentary soundtrack rather than add to it.
The most fully alive women on the screen are thus young Andrea, seen in archival TV footage discussing her life as a budding working-class artist in the 1980s, and Monica Dolan, who forcefully plays the heroine in the excerpts from Dunbar’s drama, closely adapted from the playwright’s violent family life and her relationship with Lorraine’s Pakistani father. Barnard gives compelling witness to the daughter’s lifelong anguish, from a burning bed to feeling “well cared for” in jail, but it’s Andrea’s unmediated voice that adds a last pitiful irony, telling an interviewer that her kids are “not as much [trouble] as what people make ‘em out to be.”